Dustin Kight

Leadership Open Thread: What Makes a President?

Filed By Dustin Kight | March 02, 2008 12:03 PM | comments

Filed in: Politics
Tags: Barack Obama, Bill Clinton, Democrat primaries, Hillary Rodham Clinton, president

Let us leave "facts" aside for a minute, disputed as they often are. Let us instead engage in the narrative that has developed (and sharpened) over the past few months of the Democratic primary -- that one candidate represents experience and fight, while the other represents inspiration and change.

The truth, as level-headed people would agree, lies somewhere in the middle. Polls show that while Obama may have a wider swatch of supporters these days, Clinton's die-hards are more die-hard than his. In other words, she does inspire. And for at least one 50-51% demographic (ahem, women) she certainly represents change.

Obama, on the other hand, is certainly more than a well-spoken hand puppet. You don't become the first African American president of the Harvard Law Review and serve as a community organizer in the South Side of Chicago if you lack both heart and brains.

Nonetheless, the campaigns and their candidates have their messages locked down. In this corner, Experience and Fight. In that corner, Inspiration and Change.

Which leads us to an interesting question, and one that I wrestled with in the beginning of this campaign, but have pretty much settled for myself in the last few months:

What, by and large, should a president be? When you think about the role of a president, do you think of her or him largely as an ambassador of a people (and, perhaps, a party's agenda) or as the chief executive officer of a people (and, perhaps, a party's agenda)?

In my mind, Obama falls more into the first category, at least as his candidacy implies. And when I think about American politics, I think a president who can lead by personality, engage the country, entice a people, shake things up, etc., while having the guts and brains to pull an agenda together and see it through is the kind of president I want and the kind of president our system most benefits from.

But there are solid arguments -- so some of you will certainly tell us ;) -- for the role of president as the "boss" of the nation, setting the agenda, taking a more hands-on approach, seeing the agenda through.

So I'm curious, what do people think about this? Is it a useful question to ask? It's certainly helped me think through my choices in this election. And if I had my way, I'd choose a president who could accomplish both. (Some might say that Bill Clinton was this kind of president, even if I don't agree with a lot of what his agenda/tactics entailed.)

But in this election, so the campaign goes, when you go to the ballot box you have to wonder, even if you're one of those people who sees very few differences between the candidates, that you're disadvantaging either experience or inspiration when you make your final mark.

So which matters more for you -- and not just in terms of these candidates, but in terms of the kind of president you think best serves this nation and this nation's form of government?

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Dustin, that's a really good question. As far as change goes, Hillary represents more of a change in my mind than Obama, simply because I think having a woman in the White House would be something that young girls and women like myself will find inspiring. I remember saying, "I want to be President when I grow up" when I was a little girl. It never dawned on me that this wasn't possible. When I first started to call myself a feminist, it was because of Hillary Clinton's trip to Beijing in 1995 and her declaration that women's rights are human rights. Growing up in a Mormon household meant that women were seen and not heard. And Hillary was a woman who was definitely making herself heard. Hillary is an inspiration, even if I don't agree 100% with all of her politics. Just having a woman in the White House will be so radical that I think it will make a big difference in what we view as possible for ourselves and for women in the future.

I don't dislike Obama. He's a smooth guy. And compared to the monkey boy we have in office now, it would be nice to WANT to listen to Presidential addresses instead of wanting to change the channel.

As for experience, Hillary was at the top of her class at Yale and was a senior partner in her law firm. And I'm convinced that Bill Clinton would be nowhere without her. She masterminded his entire career. So she certainly knows how to get things done. I don't know as much about Obama's career (to be totally honest). All I know is that he sounds and looks good. But like I said, that may just be enough to get him elected. It is certainly appearing that way right now.

Good question Dustin, though I find the foundational premises about the candidates to be weak.

Much is made of Obama's being president of the Harvard Law Review, but the fact is that such an accomplishment is more the stuff of an entry level resume than what I want for leader of the country. The fact that he was the first African American president of the Harvard Law Review probably says more about the evolution of the country and Ivy League universities in the 1970's than it does about his intellectual superiority over previous or subsequent presidents of the Law Review; it's arguably a situation of right place right time.

As for his community organizing, he makes more of it than it was. He was not Jesse Jackson, or Harvey Milk. He was just a community organizer of no extraordinary note. Again, this is another entry level accomplishment.

Hillary Clinton's experience on the other hand is so extensive that little attention is paid to comparable details. She was singled out by Life magazine as one of the top college students in America. While in law school she started working for Marianne Wright Edelman, a colleague of Martin Luther King's, on projects to stop school segregation that had national impact. Two years out of law school she was counsel to the House Committee investigating Watergate. Even by these early career accomplishments, she outshines in a most inspirational way the admirable accomplishments of Barack Obama.

As you say, Clinton supporters are deeply inspired by her. Since Hillary has received nearly a million more votes from Democrats than Obama (his lead is attributable to Republicans and independents voting in open primaries and caucuses), it is a false leap of logic to say that Obama is more a leader and advocate of the people. Hillary's followers feel that those labels apply more to her than to him. They'll acknowledge the skill he has reading a teleprompter, but they don't find inspiration in his words, which often contradict words he's spoken before other crowds in other states (his positions on the role of unions in the campaign, gays, NAFTA, interventionist foreign policy, voting for the 2002 resolution authorizing the use of force in Iraq, lobbyists, campaign finance, and other issues have all changed depending upon the audience).

I want a candidate who has a rock solid commitment to universal healthcare and who doesn't undermine that principal through campaign rhetoric. I want a candidate who communicates with our community and doesn't just send ads (cloked as "open letter") to gay media. I want a candidate who does not knowingly and intentionally pander to anti-gay groups by giving a microphone, a stage, an audience, and a tacit endorsement to someone who makes a living off of homophobia. I want a candidate who doesn't snub gay media and invitations to speak to the gay community (Obama was the only one of eight Democratic candidates to reject and invitation from the NYC LGBT Community Services Center to reject an invitation to speak). I want a candidate who doesn't refer to labor unions as special interests. I want a candidate whose words are inspirational because I can trust that they will be backed up by action. Obama does not fit the bill on any of these counts.

That said, I want a president who is both the boss of the government and someone who inspires and leads the people. Hillary Clinton is that person for me, and millions of others.

Michael Bedwell | March 2, 2008 5:56 PM

Don’t recall anyone questioning Obama’s intelligence, but the example you gave is hardly cogent in terms of how to decide who might make a better President of the United States. The president of the “Harvard Law Review” is also an ELECTED position—and it took NINETEEN ballots and several hours for a majority of the review’s 80 editors to finally agree on Obama out of 19 original candidates. An article in “The New York Times” last year compared it with electing a pope, and one in the current “Vanity Fair” described him as “an overt compromise candidate.”

More interesting, even illuminating, is that Obama had already identified even then—18 years ago—the political strategy that still works best for him. From “The New York Times,” Jan. 28, 2007:

“People had a way of hearing what they wanted in Mr. Obama’s words. Earlier, after a long, tortured discussion about whether it was better to be called ‘black’ or ‘African-American’, Mr. Obama dismissed the question, saying semantics did not matter as much as real-life issues [where have we heard that before? - MB], recalled Cassandra Butts, still a close friend. According to [Charles J. Ogletree Jr., another Harvard law professor and a mentor of Mr. Obama], students on each side of the debate thought he was endorsing their side. ‘Everyone was nodding, Oh, he agrees with me’, he said. ... His speeches, delivered in the oratorical manner of a Baptist minister, were more memorable for style than substance, Mr. Mack said. ‘It’s the inspiration of the speech rather than the specific content’, he said. ... [A] mouse infestation at the review office provoked a long exchange about rodent rights — as well as some uncertainty about what Mr. Obama himself thought about the issue at hand. ... In dozens of interviews, his friends said they could not remember his specific views from that era, beyond a general emphasis on diversity and social and economic justice.”

As for your fragile reduction of H & O to experience vs. inspiration, regardless, neither is attempting to sell either alone. In fact, the “inspiration” part is more a byproduct—granted a staggeringly successful one that has been compared to everything from a religious revival to a Moonie mass wedding to a Hitler Youth rally—of his patented and pat promises to bring “change” through “consensus.” When he explicitly promises to operate a “bully pulpit” for advancing this or that issue, including those LGBT-related, that’s far more "hands on" than simply attempting to “lead by personality.”

One could choose any number of examples from a wide spectrum of contentious issues that any President who wants to create significant change is going to face with a large number of conservative Congressmen from both parties who are just waiting to say to Obama, a la Joan Crawford to the Pepsi Board: “Don’t fuck with me, fella, this ain’t my first time at the rodeo.”

And the expected greater majority of Democrats after November isn’t going to automatically change it that much for some issues. Consider ENDA. While it finally passed in the House, even the version not including protections for transgenders has too many opponents to override a Bush veto. Will there be enough additional new trans-friendly Democrats in the next session to pass a trans-inclusive version? Would a Pres. Obama—however willing to sign once passed—have the ability to change enough minds if there is not? How hard can we expect him to even try, particularly when, like every first term President he will be thinking the effect every action he takes will have on his chances to be reelected?

It’s a guessing game, of course, as it would be for any candidate who like a first date tries to seduce us with words of love. But we have some Obama history to consider in terms of both how much he might try and how much he might succeed.

Four years ago, after cosponsoring earlier versions of a proposed Illinois LGBT rights bill, State Senator Obama mysteriously chose not to cosponsor the version that seemed to have the greatest chance to finally pass. When LGBT groups in Illinois, both white and black, feverishly lobbied Obama's personal friend the Rev. & Sen. James Meeks to vote for the bill he refused and, after over 30 years of trying, the bill passed by a single vote. The political chair for Equality Illinois gave total credit for its passage, however much by a hair, to the woman senator who had introduced the bill.

On the one hand, they might not have been surprised that a man who had run for governor on an antigay platform would not change, but on the other hand perhaps they thought that Rev. Meeks' hatred of gays might have softened a little bit from his close friendship with Mr. Obama who describes himself now as a tireless advocate for gay rights during all those years he's known Meeks. Did his advocacy stop at the door of his homohating friend?

More recently, just four months ago, we saw it stop at the edge of the campaign rally stage. From what Donnie McClurkin said on that stage—paid for by Obama—he's just as polarized in his opposition to gay dignity and equality as he was before Oprah ever introduced him to Obama a few months before. Does McClurkin still think gays are trying to destroy America's children? One can only assume he does as Obama's solution in the shameful chain of events, his message was, to "agree to disagree—though there is no evidence that McClurkin received it directly from the candidate; that anyone besides we the victims of McClurkin’s demonizing received it.

Where was the “inspiration” in that? How did he “lead” us—LGBTs and non-LGBTs—Americans— to a better place in that teaching moment “by personality”? Neither did he “engage’ nor “entice” nor certainly not “shake things up.” Where were his “guts”? What was the greater “agenda” he was “pulling together” and “saw through”?

Despite all the disingenuous, self-serving hissy fits about a certain recent campaign commercial about real dangers in the real world—far beyond the make believe reality of the offices of the “Harvard Law Review” where Time—and action—stands still as they debate the "rights of rodent"—is that the kind of person we want answering the White House crisis phone at 3 am? "Well, Osama [Kim Jong-il, Ahmadinejad, Putin, Medvedev, et al.]—we’re just going to have to agree to disagree.”

Or even simply trying to turn the experienced, hide-bound lions against LGBT equality and hate crimes legislation—or against passing real universal health care, or healing the environment, or protecting civil liberties, or funding a cure for AIDS, or stopping the genocide in Darfur, or creating peace in the Mideast, or...—into lambs?

No, he can’t.

While many here are clearly unappreciative of Senator Obama's recent outreach efforts to our community, it is interesting that he is already under attack from the Right for the very same outreach :



As for the claims of some that he is some sort of lightweight, this recent piece from the Washington Post Business section makes some good points :


And regarding the qualities one is looking for in a president, this new video by Will.i.am eloquently summarizes what it is about Obama that for me and countless others makes him exactlt the sort of president we are longing for :

http://www.dipdive.com/dip-politics/wato/ "WE ARE THE ONES"


The government represents the people in all ways - we elect! I would ask what kind of people we are? Then, perhaps, consider what makes a President.

Michael Bedwell | March 2, 2008 10:41 PM

Dearly Beloved,

You are the Ones who will be selling flowers for Obama at airports soon.

Let me see—we had the crowd in Texas who applauded simply because he sneezed, we have women fainting at so many stops that allegedly medics are now on duty at his rallys. Have you thrown your panties on stage yet? Have the reports of miracles started yet? Does he have to touch the dead before they rise, just be in the same room, or can he phone it in?

Michael Bedwell continues to insult my faith and that of countless others with his snide remarks about miracles, raising the dead, selling flowers in airports and with his baseless charges that Obama is regarded by us as a Messiah and that we worship him as a god. As one who takes idolatry as a serious sin I continue to be disappointed that Michael feels it necessary to engage in personal attacks based on the religious faith of others to make his case. We have already seen in this campaign Senator Obama "accused" of being a "secret Muslim" ( http://www.cnn.com/2007/POLITICS/01/22/obama.madrassa/ ) , an overt attack on his denomination - and mine - by the IRS
( http://www.ucc.org/news/obama-speech-in-2007-prompts-1.html ) , and slanders against our denomination and his home church - the largest congregation in the United Church of Christ. John Thomas, our General Minister and President has denounced these attacks :


Jim Wallis' recent piece on the attacks on Obama's religion is well worth reading :


Particularly in light of this climate of anti-religious bigotry ( where even having a Muslim middle name is cause for insult and shame http://blog.beliefnet.com/godspolitics/2008/02/i-love-my-name-by-omar-alrikab.html ) it is deeply troubling to see the continued resort to anti-religious slurs and falsehoods on this site . I pray we can move to a higher level of discourse.

The fact is, we are divisive because we have TWO great candidates. Ther reality is there is no huge advantage one way or the other, both are outstanding and far above anything that the Republicans can come up with.

Their party has splintered, Wall Street vs. Church Street, Industrialists vs Evangelicals, Robber Barons vs Rednecks.
The "big tent" of 2000 and 2004 has blown down.

This can be out our time. After the convention, no matter the nominee, we will need to take the enthusiasm that we had in the prinaries and carry it over to the general election.

A strong win will damage the Republicans for years as they struggle to decide whether or not in the end they are the party of the bank ledger or a literalist Bible.

Michael Bedwell | March 3, 2008 1:59 AM

Dearly Beloved,

The fact that you cannot or choose not to distinguish between the criticism of the abuses of faith or false faith and criticism of faith itself is what is far more disturbing than anything I say about Obama.

Certain leaders in the Catholic Church said the same kind of things about those who exposed the abuse of children by priests and its decades of cover-up by other priests and their superiors. "They're attacking the very foundations of our faith. They are anti-Catholic." blah fucking blah.

To attempt to draw a parallel between anything I've written and those who have falsely tried to smear Obama as a closet Muslim or the neo-fascists in the IRS who are attempting to intimidate the UCC after that agency has looked the other way for decades while the religious right has repeatedly abused their non-profit status is either ignorance or deceit.

Walks like messianism, talks like messianism.... if you can't put away messianic things at least have the decency and integrity to stop shooting the messenger.

And, if you're accusing me of "falsehoods" [versus expressing opinion that you simply don't like]—I pray you put up or shut up.

when I think about American politics, I think a president who can lead by personality, engage the country, entice a people, shake things up, etc., while having the guts and brains to pull an agenda together and see it through is the kind of president I want and the kind of president our system most benefits from.

Bingo. Because I think having the "guts and brains to pull an agenda together" equals the knowledge on how to achieve the goal.

Michael ,

The fact that when rightfully challenged about the anti-faith bias in your comments you immediately escalate to comparing those who challenge you to priests who sexually exploited and abused children only shows the depth of your contempt for religious folks. The "falsehoods" you promote are precisely the unjustified accusations of idolatry I have consistently objected to.

In truth, such accusations are part of the "kitchen sink" desperation smear campaign being conducted against Senator Obama and his supporters by Senator Clinton and her lackeys.

As the Times of London wrote last month:

"Clinton’s camp has been circulating stories criticising the “cult” of Obama in the hope of portraying “Obamania” as a mass delusion. Media Matters, a watchdog organisation sympathetic to Clinton, compiled a report headlined, “Media figures call Obama supporters’ behaviour ‘creepy’, compare them to Hare Krishna and Charles Manson followers”. It was forwarded by Sidney Blumenthal, a top Clinton adviser, to select reporters."

( http://www.timesonline.co.uk/tol/news/world/us_and_americas/us_elections/article3382295.ece )

Numerouus commentators have drawn attention to this smear campaign :






There is even this humorous take on the "cult" accusation :


And there is also a blog devoted to discussing Obama as the "anti-christ" ( I think they have outdone your there Michael LOL ) :


Yet in spite of all these smears against him and against sincere people of faith, support for Obama continues to grow as the once "inevitable" Clinton campaign continues to falter.

In an outstanding piece on Huffington Post yesterday, one former Clinton supporter calmly explains just what the leadership qualities are he finds lacking in Clinton but present in Obama is these late stages of the primary campaign. In a piece titled " I Can't Believe I'm Standing Up for Obama... But I Am " he concludes :

"I have had no doubts as to the sincerity of Senator Clinton's wish to do well for the American people and their interests. I just no longer believe she has the wisdom or good judgment to know when her own private wishes have come into conflict with the interests of the rest of us.... When I voted in the California primary less than four weeks ago, I pulled the lever for Senator Clinton. I now believe I was wrong.

I hope the people of Texas, Ohio, Rhode Island, and Vermont will make better choices than I did last month, and settle the race decisively -- before Senator Clinton has the chance to do more damage in her quest to protect us while we sleep. I've come to trust the candidate who's encouraging us to wake up, and to protect ourselves - even, if need be, from our own government.

I hope I get the chance to vote for Senator Obama again. I AM NOT A DEVOTEE OR DISCIPLE.(emphasis added) I am a skeptic, and remain somewhat skeptical. Still, over the past few weeks I have become convinced that Barack Obama is the better choice for the Democratic Party's presidential nominee."


Amen and Amen !

There is a "new" style of management and product development growing in the world today. The best example I can think of is the development of the Linux computer operating system. Remember how Microsoft crushed all rivals without mercy? Once it gained a monopoly on the Desktop, they went out to crush business software rivals WordPerfect and Lotus. Then they turned to the "Server" market. There they bounced. Microsoft could not crush Linux and BSD operating systems.

The reason Microsoft could not crush these rivals is not related to superiority of the product. Microsoft has always been able to crush superior products. Microsoft failed because of a fundamental difference in management style that leads the development of Linux. Microsoft is pure "Top Down" development. Decisions on what needs developed, what needs fixed, where the system will be going..... is all controlled by upper management. Linux is "open source" and community based. Individuals and groups decide for themselves what is important and what needs developed and they freely give back to the community their improvements. The results are clear. What may take months to years for Microsoft to acknowledge and fix a security breach is done in a matter of hours in the Open Source community. Trojans and Viruses and their temporary fixes which infest the Microsoft community exist not in Linux, the BSD's and other Open Source Projects.

The way of the Future is management and leadership styles which encourage community building and individual empowerment. Projects and ideas that spring forth from the people directly affected by the problems. The Republicans fail to get that at all. The Democrats are just starting to get it. The first Democrat to get it was Howard Dean. He so scared the "establishment" that they took an incident out of context and mocked him by labeling it his "scream."

I see the fight between Clinton and Obama as a fight between those who support the Top Down style of leadership against a "Bottom Up" style. Obama represents the community based grass roots led political movement. While Clinton has grass root support as well, they don't seem to have a say in what shots need to be called. Thus I support Obama. However, I don't consider him "Clean."

Even if he wins, the beltway insiders will move quickly to take control of his campaign for the "It's so important, can't take any risks" national campaign for the presidency. Whoever wins, the grass roots must ensure the beltway insiders don't destroy the election chances of the candidate because they want to "play it safe."

Michael Bedwell | March 3, 2008 1:17 PM

Dearly Beloved,

Perhaps English is your second language? There are other possible explanations, but civility prevents me from naming them. I write "A," and you immediately respond saying I wrote "B." If nothing else, such disjointed thought processes helps me better understand your simplistic adoration of Obama.

PS: Perhaps you might want to consult a dictionary before equating "opinion" with "falsehood."

PS2: Please be so Christian as to stop flooding my e-mail inbox with your propaganda. Thank you.